I participated in the Consulting Careers forum last night in Charlotte, NC at the WFU SsOB campus. It was a well-attended event with about 30 students and 6 panelists (5 alumni) representing other consulting companies such as The North Highland Company, Carlisle and Gallagher Consulting Group,  Techcheck Inc., and Mercer Health & Benefits. It was my first event as an Alumni (now 18 months out) so I was excited to get involved with the WFU community again.

Consulting companies at the WFU Alumni Event

Consulting Companies Represented at the WFU Event on June 10, 2011

I enjoyed the discussion. Mainly student Q&A, it covered questions on the typical consulting day (not that there it is such a thing), how to break into consulting, what industries are served by the consulting industry (essentially all of them), what skills are most valuable to be a good consultant, and the pros/cons of working for bigger vs. smaller firms. There were a few points that really stood out to me as being insightful from the other panelists. I’ll share them here.

First, on the topic of getting introduced to a consulting company, the point was made that it can be very helpful to make an informal introduction of yourself to the company. This can be done by leveraging whatever personal connections one might have with a company, alumni connections perhaps, to simply have lunch or coffee with a company rep which would hopefully give a sense of the culture/lifestyle that might be the norm at a given firm. Consulting is a field which relies on personal touches and comforts, and different firms will have different slants on these softer aspects of the work. The experience at Vision Point Systems, an example of a small boutique technology firm, is going to be much different than at a mega firm like Accenture.

Second, on the topic of what skills would stand out when applying for a consulting position, we all seemed to agree that the things that matter are not the things that come through on a resume. In fact, when discussing certifications such as PMI, or Six Sigma Black Belt, it was raised that these may not just simply be not valued or ignored, they can also become liabilities at certain firms, because of the potentially negative connotations that come along with them. (i.e. spreadsheet jockey)

The last major takeaway I had was on what the definition of “consulting” actually is. There were a few differing perspectives on the panel. Some were close to mine – a consulting is about problem solving end-to-end while leveraging expertise in a particular business aspect and/or industry. Others had the background of consulting being tied closer to sales. My point was that a true consultant differentiates themselves from an integrator, salesperson or technician by not only being an expert in a field or product, but by knowing how the immediate problem is impacting the overall business of the client. In my opinion, there is where the MBA really becomes valuable and why MBAs are so often associated with the consulting field

I look forward to continuing my involvement in the WFU Alumni community, and it was great to make connections with the students and other panelists in the Charlotte area.

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I recently read an article in the August issue of Valley Business Front by Anne Clelland. Her article deals with the question of what to do with a “meddling” employee who frequently questions management and even goes as far as suggesting changes to the company mission statement. Anne’s advice for this situation is:

The greatest gift leaders can give their employees is to draw a clear line between employer and employee, designate who’s to do what, and do the leader’s side with authority, credibility, and consistency….and lead the company so well that the meddlers can stop worrying about whether they’re the coach or you are, and be the true team players you hired in the first place.

My thoughts immediately went in an opposite direction.

In my mind, there are two likely reasons for an employee to “meddle” – 1) They actually have good ideas and are looking to take ownership in their organization, or 2) Management really has no idea what they are doing or hasn’t clearly communicated the vision. In both cases, the meddler is really an asset. The question is how do you capitalize on it.

In the first case, the employee is an idea factory. The mutual frustration exhibited would stem from a lack of a meaningful outlet . I’m not saying any employee in any company should be allowed a seat at every board meeting, but any employee in any company of any size should have a clearly defined path of influence on their area of responsibility. There are plenty of examples in many industries of this in action – line workers suggesting better locations for tools for increased efficiency, bus boys suggesting new recipes, and so on. If the CEO’s suggestion box is full, it’s probably because the lower level managers aren’t listening to their direct reports.

The second case likely stems from a lack of company identity. Perhaps an employee suggests a new mission statement because they have no connection to the current one. Communication of the mission and vision is much more than simply repeating it in email signatures or putting it on banners. The mission needs to be real. If a manager has to “draw a line” because they are challenged, it’s because the common goal is unclear. In a case where you might be tempted to say the meddling employee simply doesn’t fit and should be removed, you must think of why that employee was hired to begin with. It probably has something to do with an ill-defined culture and corporate mission.

In today’s world, no company, from a mom and pop grocer to a mega-conglomerate, can rest on their laurels that what get them here will be what keeps them in business 2 years from now. Cycles and spin-up time for new technologies are short and getting shorter. Companies can no longer “do one thing and do it well”. The new strategy should be “do one thing, and figure out the next way to do it better before the next guy does”. One of the best chances a company has to adapt and prosper is to act on good ideas. Stifling an enthusiastic employee with an “I’m the boss” defense is akin to shooting yourself in the foot.

If you’re a Roanoker, you may have heard about the launch of RoanokeOutside.com. It’s been well publicized on Twitter, Facebook, and now some other media outlets such as Star City Harbinger and WSLS. Beth Doughty, Executive Director of the Roanoke Regional Partnership does a good job summarizing the site in their latest press release:

“Making the outdoors an important part of our region’s narrative starts with a comprehensive Web site that catalogues our natural resources and makes it easier for people all over the world to learn about and enjoy our region’s natural resources.”

My company, Vision Point Systems, is behind the development of this site. We have an interesting task ahead of us balancing the demand for an objective catalog of the region’s offerings with the desire to build a dynamic community of outdoor enthusiasts and casual participants. This is one of those instances where social media can seem like a buzzword. It’s tempting to decorate the page with Twitter feeds, Friendfeed streams, etc. There’s a real risk of getting too hung up on the social aspect and burying the real purpose of the site. There will be some much needed traditional web features such as a hiking trail database, links to local outfitters, events lists, and other guidance and tips. The last thing we want to happen is create a feeling of exclusivity because of a passionate core group of outdoor enthusiasts.

The great part about the process we’re going through is that we’ve launched the site as a completely temporary entity to act as a preview and feedback mechanism. We’ve got a clear deadline set for Sept 30 to get the real thing built and we’re thrilled about the buzz the site is getting so far.

The RoanokeOutside.com temporary page

The RoanokeOutside.com temporary page

I’d personally welcome feedback on this subject, but the best course of action is to take the survey on the site itself!

I just got off a massive conference call  for a client with 20+ other people. It’s noteworthy to me that calls like this take place, especially when the 20 people come from 20 different departments. It’s also understandable that people might be annoyed when pulled from their daily routine for a call regarding a unique event that’s about to happen that they may have a very minor role in. The main facilitator for this particular call is a co-consultant from another vendor. He about got ripped to shreds by the more senior people on the call for things like pausing to take notes or simply just taking a while to get around to the point of his questions. Poor Guy. I might be tempted to say that these types of meetings can be evened out with detailed objective documentation. This guy took it too far in that regard as well. He sends out documents multiple times a day with filenames about 150 characters long. Emails go to 25 people with all the thread history embedded in the message. The documents themselves are just list on list on list… I’m on the fringe of involvement myself. I’m annoyed – not to the point of being hostile – but I certainly wish I could ignore what’s going on.

This type of situation makes me reflect on my own communication style, and the general communication style we coach in my company. I’ve come up with these insights:

  • Meetings should be for the benefit of those participating. If an attendee won’t be directly acting based on the entirety of the topic discussed or won’t be expected to raise questions or concerns about the overll topic, they probably don’t need to be in the meeting. Side meetings or email conversations can extract a lot of information that can be recorded and reported by a central moderator.
  • When speaking, be clear about who you are speaking to and end every comment with a directive or question.
  • Summary documents are useful, but only when action items or outliers are clearly identified. I think a stoplight solution is great way to show what is at risk.
  • If you, as a facilitator, have concerns, it is best to approach the owner of those items offline first instead of the public forum.
  • The telephone is still a useful tool.
  • A picture is worth a 1000 words. I love Visio diagrams to show relationships. Nothing says “This is where the failure point is going to be” better than a big red X on a flow chart or system diagram.
  • Don’t impose your organization methods on everyone else. If you feel you need to catalog every email, do it in a way that will not clutter everyone else’s email box with superfluous subject lines, etc
  • Most people are smart, just busy.

Just some thoughts. Hopefully they are good reminders.